Saturday, September 11, 2010

Risa Morales presents Helen Cooper's "Hard Candy"

Helen Cooper has a show, Hard Candy, up in the Blue Star Contemporary Arts center from September 2 to November 6, 2010.  This body of work is focused on the dynamics of race as expressed through Chicago's acrylic nail art placed in various environs.  These large-scale (26"x40") images show close-ups of various nail styles on people of various racial background.  This is her statement about this series.

When I read the description for this show, I was curious to see how Ms. Cooper was going to explore this type of subject matter.  Race is a touchy subject in many places and can be addressed in many different ways.  From what I've seen of nail art, the colors tend to be bright and flashy, even gaudy.  It was my hope to see her address this in a playful way, to maximize on the potential that such bright colors can provide.  The description states that she placed the nails in "mountains of confections, piles of glitter, and well-organized girlhood clutter to create novel relationships between material and color," which seemed to support my hope of playfulness.

I have to admit that upon seeing the actual images I was disappointed.  Perhaps if I had lived in Chicago and knew "nail-culture," these images *might* have spoken to me more.  I have no idea which designs are typically associated with what race or location, so any juxtaposition or redefinition she might have made between nail and wearer is entirely lost.  At least one of her images was out of focus, an error that almost shouts at the educated eye when it is displayed in large-scale.  Additionally, while the natural color of the skin makes it stand out amongst the bright and/or shiny backgrounds, the nails themselves are incredibly hard to pick out.  They just sort of get lost and lumped in with all the information in the settings she chose.  Finally, the scale that these images were printed out to (26x40) only served to make the images seem almost menacing and grotesque.  Gigantic claw-like nails in a relatively small display space makes for fairly uncomfortable viewing.  I think a smaller image size would have presented the nails equally as bright and colorful, but more feminine than monstrous.

After viewing her images on her webpage, I found that I actually liked some of them.  On the webpage, the fingers are a bit larger than lifesize, but still visually manageable.  You are better able to take survey of the full image and can begin to pick out details and curiosities in each that you just don't have the space to do at Blue Star.  You also get to see the *entire* body of work.  Some of the images present online better express the artist's goal than the pieces that were displayed in the gallery.  From what I know of people, most of them won't take the time to investigate Ms. Cooper's work (and her fun concept) any further.  What they saw in the gallery is what they'll take home with them.

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